Oct 23 2011

Keeping Your Superpowers From Getting Stale

Published by at 12:30 am under Superpowers

Here’s some advice on keeping superpowers novel throughout your story.

1. Have the character(s) put the superpowers to different uses.  If you’ve already had your characters stop a bank robbery, it might be more interesting to have them prevent an assassination or conduct a high-speed chase or solve a difficult crime that has already happened than, say, stop a robbery at a jewelry store.  Varying your scenes gives you a better chance to leave readers guessing about what will happen and how.

 

2. Please try some different obstacles and hazards, hopefully something the character isn’t used to.  For example, if a character can fly 100+ miles per hour, an ordinary car chase probably won’t be very interesting because there’s so little challenge.  For example, what if there’s a massive windstorm (either natural or controlled by a superpower or magic)?  Chicago had 50+ mph winds a few days ago and it was hard enough to walk without getting knocked over, so I can only imagine how difficult it would have been to chase someone in the air.  If the character is used to using his powers in a very deliberate and methodical way (e.g. like a telepath might benefit from concentration or Batman might benefit from preparation), what will he do in a fast-moving crisis that caught him by surprise?*

*Don’t try to tell me that “OF COURSE BATMAN WAS READY FOR A SHARK ATTACK–THAT’S WHY HE HAD EXPLODING SHARK REPELLENT.”  Only madness lies that way.

 

2.1. Please keep low-risk uses of superpowers to a minimum.  For example, the scene where a character first tries using his powers is usually pretty low-risk (e.g. Peter Parker testing what his webs can do).  As a brief scene, that’s not a huge liability, but if you have 3+ characters with superpowers, I wouldn’t recommend spending pages putting each character in such a situation.  I feel that one character just testing out his powers tends to come off surprisingly like any other character just testing her powers out, even if the powers are different.  One possibility is that the characters learn and/or test their powers in a risky situation.  For example, maybe the characters are tested for something like admission into a superhero team shortly after developing superpowers.  If the character really wants to make the team, the learning process will probably be higher-stakes and more interesting than just webbing around town.

 

3. Show us an experience, preferably one we haven’t seen before.  It might help to try forcing the character to occasionally use his powers in a way they are clearly not meant to be used.  For example, a character that has wings might have some success using them underwater (i.e. like flippers).  What would it be like to try flying underwater or, umm, maybe activate flame-based powers underwater?  What would it be like using forcefields as a makeshift telekinetic power?  (Probably more messy than actual telekinesis, I’d imagine).  If a fire-controller needs to cross a 10 foot chasm, would it be possible to use his powers to create enough recoil to send himself sprawling over the chasm?  How does a guy with a massive laser rifle deal with a situation that requires a more gentle touch than killing everybody, like dispersing rioters?

 

4. If there are any limitations to the characters’ powers, maybe they come into play.  How does the character get around these limitations?  For example, in the third X-Men movie, the soldiers prepared for Magneto’s metal-controlling powers by getting rid of anything metal.  Magneto got around that by bringing the Golden State Bridge with him.  Alternately, perhaps the character’s powers are unusually unreliable or unavailable during the scene.  For example, maybe your powersuited character runs out of fuel for his jets, so he either has to scrap together some alternative (fast food grease: I’m lovin’ it as an extremely primitive fuel?) or figure out how to save the day without flying.

 

5.  If you have several superpowered characters, you might try different combinations of characters on various missions.  For example, if you have a team with a fragile psychic, a marksman, a tank like the Hulk, and a ninja, the marksman will probably be in the same sort of relatively-safe support role, letting the tank take the hits.  Mixing up the rosters on various missions helps give characters chances to test skills they probably wouldn’t use much otherwise.*  If the next mission pairs up the marksman with just the psychic, the marksman’s role would look pretty different.  For example, he might be a lot closer to the action so that he takes fire and/or distracts the enemy, which would be totally unnecessary if his partner were the unjolly green giant.  Alternately, what does a ninja do if his partner is the Hulk?  Should he just assume that stealth is out from minute one or try to do something stealthy on his own before giving the tank the signal to come in?  (Good luck getting the Hulk to wait that long, though).

5.1. Here are some reasons the team might mix up the roster rather than use everybody on every mission. 

  • There’s more than one emergency and the team had to split up to deal with all of them.
  • Some of the members may be too far away at a particular moment to respond to an emergency.
  • Heroes might be physically incapacitated or otherwise unable to help.
  • The situation might call for a smaller team.  For example, maybe it’s a stealth mission or transport space is limited.
  • Some members have other responsibilities and are only available during particularly grave situations.
  • Some members might be deemed liabilities on a particular mission.  For example, you’d probably want to leave the Human Torch behind for a mission in a chemical plant or the Hulk for a mission anywhere.  Alternately, in a more bureaucratic organization (like a police organization), members might be on administrative leave if they’ve done something to annoy the boss.  (Like threatening to eat a district attorney).
  • The organization might want to leave somebody in reserve in case another disaster strikes, particularly if supervillains have done diversionary attacks before.
  • The organization is large and coordinating all of the members is complicated.  Bringing along everybody could result in more collateral damage than necessary.
  • The organization might split up the members into smaller units to be more efficient.  For example, in real life cities, the police will typically patrol in pairs, but might deploy hundreds or thousands of officers in a large-scale conflagration like a riot, a hippie convention or a 49ers game.
  • Keeping the heroes with the same few teammates as much as possible helps them build camaraderie and practice effective teamwork.  For example, in the military, I think soldiers are more likely to feel really close to their teammates on their fireteam (population: 4) than other members of their company (population: ~150).
  • Splitting into smaller groups gives the organization more opportunities for developing leaders.  For example, when the police need to replace a captain, competent lieutenants frequently get the nod.  In contrast, if your organization only works as one unit, then it would probably be gratuitously difficult to replace the leader if he leaves or gets temporarily incapacitated, because nobody will have much leadership experience besides the first guy.

31 responses so far

31 Responses to “Keeping Your Superpowers From Getting Stale”

  1. Indigoon 23 Oct 2011 at 4:33 pm

    I’ve always wondered how to mix things up when you have a whole school for super heroes and you don’t want to use every character on every mission. I will definitely be applying these tips. Great article.

  2. ekimmakon 23 Oct 2011 at 4:51 pm

    I can only think that a hero would carry shark repellent is if there’s a good reason to expect sharks (Hmm, Lord Doombreaker has been ordering a lot of sharks from Evil Empires Co. Better bring the shark repellent.)
    Alternatively, you can bring up that they ALWAYS have shark repellent, just in case. Along with bat repellent, clown repellent, flyswatters, etc. to the point that even when they have just the right thing for the situation, they can’t actually find it.

    Obviously, this would be for a comedic work. I don’t really see it for serious works.

  3. Mynaon 23 Oct 2011 at 6:03 pm

    This is pretty helpful! I think I’m gonna throw together some scenarios and random Hero Core peeps, and see what happens, what with everyones powers and stuff. xD Might be fun.

  4. CCOlsonon 23 Oct 2011 at 8:13 pm

    Of course, if you don’t care about the environment there are several general purpose toxins that will flat kill most animals, including sharks.

  5. CCOlsonon 24 Oct 2011 at 11:54 am

    How do you test your superpowers in a dangerous situation while avoiding the classic Mary Sue situation where the discovery of a new power gets the character out of trouble?

  6. B. McKenzieon 25 Oct 2011 at 1:35 am

    That’s an interesting question, CCO. Maybe the character gets his superpowers in a tense and/or high-risk scene? Maybe the character has some goal besides just trying out his powers?
    –For example, the protagonist of Cowboys and Aliens acquires some sort of cybernetic implant by stealing it while imprisoned by the aliens. Then he has to break out.

    –If the military was evaluating several candidates for a position like Iron-Man, they might have the candidates compete in different courses or war games. In that case, the training scenes will be more interesting because the scenes are developing the plot and the character’s goals rather than just showing us what the character’s powers can do. (The stakes are higher for the characters).

    –In Roald Dahl’s Matilda, the character isn’t in danger while practicing her telekinesis, but she is sort of on a ticking clock. (The friendly teacher is getting screwed by the evil headmistress and it’s pretty much only a matter of time before one of the students gets maimed or killed). I think that adds urgency to her practice.

    –Depending on how the author handled it, I think it might be okay for the character’s powers to manifest during a moment of high stress. Ideally, the power only gives the character the opportunity, but it’s the character that does most of the work. For example, if an organization like the Company abducts someone because he/she is going to develop a dangerous superpower, I think it’d be dramatic if the power activated but he/she had little control over it. The superpower won’t overcome all of the character’s obstacles (e.g. the ability to control hurricane-force winds might be really helpful in breaking out of the Company’s prison, but probably not hiking 100 miles through wilderness from the prison to the nearest town). Also, the emergence of powers might create additional problems and obstacles (for example, if the powers are hard to control and dangerous, etc). In contrast, in the Mary Sue situation, the character suddenly develops superpowers and everything just magically falls into place.

  7. Non 25 Oct 2011 at 11:22 am

    Any ninja worth his black pajamas would be happy to have a big, noisy distraction like the Hulk on missions with more than one possible angle of attack, so long as it’s not a situation where they want to get in and out with no one knowing they were ever there. Classic misdirection – who’s going to be worried about the air vents around back when the green goliath is throwing around tanks on the front lawn?

  8. B. McKenzieon 25 Oct 2011 at 1:44 pm

    “Any ninja worth his black pajamas…” I love that phrase. But any ninja enthusiast could tell you that the technical term is ninja pajamas.



    Less facetiously, I think the Hulk would limit the ninja’s options if the plan were to do something like deep ninja infiltration while the partner waited in reserve (i.e. “I’ll call you if there’s an emergency, but otherwise just let me be the ninja”). With the Hulk, I think there’s a very good chance the Hulk will do something that alerts the guards, which will cause at least a few of them to act in unpredictable and dangerous ways (like varying their regular patrols, perhaps?). Also, if the ninja does get captured or otherwise needs backup, I can think of many heroes that would be better-suited for a search-and-rescue than the Hulk.

    That said, using the Hulk as the ultimate distraction is clever, even though it does alert the guards. This could be problematic if the enemy is intelligent and has prepared the guards accordingly. (“In the event of a security situation, Squad Y will escort the critical scientists to the escape pods and Squad Z will wipe the hard-drives”). Ideally, by the time the tank has broken through, everything valuable has already been removed and the villain has suffered nothing but an inconvenience.

    Another way to use the ninja would be to find out what the emergency protocols for the base are and then sabotage them. For example, if the escape pods have been mysteriously disabled, it’s a Hulk party and everybody’s invited.

  9. ElJaleoon 26 Oct 2011 at 10:20 am

    “How do you test your superpowers in a dangerous situation while avoiding the classic Mary Sue situation where the discovery of a new power gets the character out of trouble?”

    “–Depending on how the author handled it, I think it might be okay for the character’s powers to manifest during a moment of high stress. Ideally, the power only gives the character the opportunity, but it’s the character that does most of the work. For example, if an organization like the Company abducts someone because he/she is going to develop a dangerous superpower, I think it’d be dramatic if the power activated but he/she had little control over it. The superpower won’t overcome all of the character’s obstacles (e.g. the ability to control hurricane-force winds might be really helpful in breaking out of the Company’s prison, but probably not hiking 100 miles through wilderness from the prison to the nearest town). Also, the emergence of powers might create additional problems and obstacles (for example, if the powers are hard to control and dangerous, etc). In contrast, in the Mary Sue situation, the character suddenly develops superpowers and everything just magically falls into place.”
    ———————————————————————————————

    I have a problem that is sort of related to this. I’m currently writing a story that involves a strange (maybe) and dark power. I have no clue what it is, but here’s info that I DO have:

    1. It’s inherited (sort of like a curse)
    2a. It does not manifest itself until the protagonist is a certain age…
    2b. at which point it comes suddenly, and the poor dude is EXTREMELY vulnerable for one hour while the power takes full effect/grabs hold
    3. Its involuntary
    4. It’s dangerous, extremely so, to both the “wielder” and those around him.

    I’m thinking that once the power arrives, the protagonist’s eye color will change. (From both brown to one gold, one brown) but it sounds a little cheesy to me. What do you think?

    So that’s all I’ve got. I don’t have any ideas about what the power actually IS, which is why I need help. What power/powers do you think are best associated with the information above?
    I was thinking visions/telepathy/brain power but those don’t really fit with the story, and any case they don’t seem like the “ultimate dark power.”

    Also, The protaganist is the goodguy, but b/c of the power he could actually be considered the badguy. Is this too cliche?

  10. B. Macon 26 Oct 2011 at 12:04 pm

    “I’m thinking that once the power arrives, the protagonist’s eye color will change. (From both brown to one gold, one brown) but it sounds a little cheesy to me. What do you think?” I agree it could easily be cheesy. Are there any other physical changes you might try that are either more visually memorable or otherwise unique? (For example, maybe he causes the temperature to drop by 5 or 10 degrees whenever he walks in a room, particularly if his powers are even remotely related to ice). I don’t think eye colors are that evocative.

    Since it’s a really dark power, I think it’d make sense if it were somewhat unpleasant for the character and/or the people around him.


    “I was thinking visions/telepathy/brain power but those don’t really fit with the story, and any case they don’t seem like the ‘ultimate dark power.’ Well, first, I think any power could be evil, depending on how it manifests and what the costs are like. For example, Bitter Seeds made teleportation feel sinister by adding some terrible costs (it’s powered by human suffering).

    However, some powers strike me as more inherently villainous than others. For example…
    –Anything with nightmares.
    –Anything with really messy psychic powers. (Well, any imprecise and hard-to-control powers, but particularly psychic powers).
    –Anything that leaves the character physically or spiritually disfigured (e.g. werewolves or vampires).
    –Something that spills over badly into his regular life.

  11. ElJaleoon 26 Oct 2011 at 2:07 pm

    Thanks B.Mac
    I’m not going to go for a beast/transformation power, I know that much; and after more thoroughly reading up on it, I think that it will defiantly lean more towards the psychic side of things, though I’m loathe to do so, for reasons of originality.

  12. Wingson 26 Oct 2011 at 3:40 pm

    Adding onto B. Mac’s post, about how any superpower can be evil depending on the circumstance…

    A specific power could be considered evil if it was the cause of a bad event in the past (maybe a superpowered terrorist?). For example, if a pyrokinetic burns a skyscraper full of people off the map, then in the following years people with fire powers are probably going to be hated.

    – Wings

  13. B. Macon 26 Oct 2011 at 4:00 pm

    Or a superpower that has extremely few healthy/respectable applications. For example, a control of fire could be useful in some nonviolent situations (like managing a forest fire or something), whereas something like the ability to cause pain is, ahem, not as versatile.

  14. xionvalkyrieon 26 Oct 2011 at 5:25 pm

    This is a power from an anime a while back, but I think it’d fit your character pretty well. Basically, the power makes the character essentially a superman, but the drawback is that it drains the lifeforce of everyone around him. It’s also uncontrollable, so the life drain effect is always on, and the area of effect grows larger and larger.

    So for your character, when he activates his power, he gets some kind of enhanced ability (probably something specific to fit your story) but slowly kills everyone around him, which makes it extremely dangerous to use.

  15. CCOlsonon 26 Oct 2011 at 9:02 pm

    Useful if you’re completely surrounded by enemies, though.

  16. ElJaleoon 27 Oct 2011 at 6:03 pm

    har har.
    Anyhow, thanks for all the feedback.
    I think I’ll go with the ability to manipulate darkness, (metaphysical/spiritual/mental darkness) which carries over in his ability to enter other people’s dreams. (Although how dreamwalking is dangerous, I don’t yet know…)
    Also something else, called a “Dusk” state, in which he essentially looses the control to regulate his attacks against an enemy, as his mind/soul “leaves” his body while this happens, or he gets lost in the darkness which he is supposed to control. Although in this state his body is nearly invincible, a plus, there will be quite a few injuries once he “returns” to it. heh.
    Does this make sense? Is it goofy? Sould I change/add something? What do you think?

  17. CCOlsonon 27 Oct 2011 at 6:24 pm

    Dreamwalking can be very very very dangerous if you posit that a person is in a vulnerable mental state while dreaming. Watch the movie Inception for ideas.

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  19. Klutzon 26 Dec 2012 at 8:07 am

    Which power do you think is more workable: sound manipulation or invisibility and intangibility? I want a power that is not overpowered, but is versitile and can grow in power over time.

  20. B. McKenzieon 26 Dec 2012 at 10:27 am

    I would vote for sound manipulation over invisibility/intangibility because it strikes me as somewhat more versatile and likely to lead to more interesting failures. In contrast, I feel like powers which make for REALLY easy escapes (e.g. intangibility) will make it harder to hold characters accountable for their mistakes, which makes it harder to use interesting decisions to generate drama. Alternately, you could avoid that issue somewhat by limiting the power in various ways, but sound manipulation strikes me as more promising.

  21. Klutzon 26 Dec 2012 at 3:08 pm

    Well, if I went the sound route, the character would probably use the power to remove sound for stealth, while supersonic screams would be somewhat limited due to strain. For invisibility/intangibility, I would probably not allow the character use both powers in tandem, and probably have to wait a few minutes before switching between them. Other powers in the story include force fields, pyrokinesis, discharging electricity through touch, and strength. I want the powers to grow with the characters, and I kind of want to go in the i/i direction, but I feel it doesn’t have that much room to expand.

  22. Klutzon 27 Dec 2012 at 8:30 am

    How could the power of invisibility/intangibility be limited, while allowing it to hold its own when compared to other stronger powers?

  23. B. McKenzieon 27 Dec 2012 at 4:53 pm

    “How could the power of invisibility/intangibility be limited, while allowing it to hold its own when compared to other, stronger powers?” I’m not sure. First, unlike most other superpowers, they’re not all that useful in combat (except to escape or surprise an enemy, but still, they’re less useful than most). In the few situations where invisibility/intangibility would be useful (stealth and escapes), they’d probably make it very hard to challenge the character. If you’re REALLY set on invisibility/intangibility, I would recommend picking one or the other and using it as a secondary power for flair (e.g. like Superman’s eye beams or Spiderman’s spider-sense–a power that is used more as a change of pace than as a main power).

    If the character does a lot of combat, I’d recommend giving him a primary power which lends itself better to interesting fight scenes. One possibility which comes to mind would be superior agility–most of the things that can be done with invisibility and intangibility (e.g. sneaking up on enemies) can be done more interestingly with agility, and there are many things which can be done with agility which would be really hard to explain with intangibility/invisibility (e.g. interesting attacks). Another possibility which incorporates the superior mobility of intangibility/invisibility but might be easier to limit would be teleportation.

  24. Klutzon 27 Dec 2012 at 8:13 pm

    Would invisibility and agility mesh? The main reason I wanted invisibility/intangibility over sound manipulation was that the formor seemed more like a hand-to-hand combat power. I want the character to be more of a close range and physical combatant, because I think those kinds of fights are more interesting.

  25. B. McKenzieon 28 Dec 2012 at 12:40 am

    “Would invisibility and agility mesh?” While they are an intuitive combination, I’m having trouble thinking of a situation where an agile protagonist would be more interesting with invisibility than without it. It lowers the stakes on failure and makes stealth situations less challenging/interesting.

    Two exceptions that come to mind:
    1) If the power is very hard to control, it might be interesting as a liability for a character that’s trying to keep his superpowers secret.
    2) If it had an activation cost so high it was only a desperate last resort, it would not affect the stakes on failure very much. In LOTR, invisibility is available to Frodo, but the ability eats away at his sanity/morals and draws the attention of magically attuned enemies. The characters in Bitter Seeds could theoretically teleport out of a fight they were losing (assuming they haven’t already been fatally wounded), but their supernatural abilities are activated by blood sacrifices serious enough that it might be worth risking death to avoid using the power. However, if invisibility is essentially a “get out of failure free” card and/or a power he can deploy flawlessly more or less at will, then I think it would probably be anti-dramatic (especially if very few enemies have the ability to detect/fight him while invisible*).

    *Some examples of invisibility detection: Ringwraiths from LOTR, infra-red sensors for Dr. Doom, anyone with incredible hearing and/or smell, water-based attacks, telekinesis (fill the room with so many shards of metal or glass that no one could hide unseen), possibly area of effect attacks and/or concussive blasts, any attack which would compromise the air in the room (like poison gas or mass suffocation), etc.

  26. Klutzon 28 Dec 2012 at 7:44 am

    What other powers could go with agility? Spider-Man has spider powers, Nightcrawler has teleportation, etc.

  27. Peter Ron 12 Jul 2013 at 8:36 am

    Just to be clear, does Batman’s shark repellent explode (either when applied or just explode in the can–which would be very bad for batman), or does it repel exploding sharks?

  28. B. McKenzieon 13 Jul 2013 at 8:52 am

    It repels sharks by exploding. However, unlike insect repellant (which is applied to the skin), shark repellant is applied to the shark.

  29. Weisson 05 Apr 2014 at 6:57 pm

    I was considering the power of disintegration for my main character. For those who don’t know of her, she’s rather temperamental, oftentimes brave and brash, yet good at heart and rather paranoid, too. Additionally, she’s quite reckless, too, as she’s made a contract with a demon, which sort of increased that aspect of her personality? (I’m still working on the specifics.)

    Coupling that with such a destructive, volatile power would be…hazardous, to say the least, which is exactly why I plan on doing it. I’d like to see her try to keep her temper in check and force herself to be better, even if it’s nearly impossible.

    Moreover, the power manifests primarily through her hands and reacts to both organic and inorganic matter automatically. For example, if she leans against a table with her hand on it, that table’s going to start sizzling and crumbling, the poor thing.
    I figure she binds her hands with bandages and gloves to prevent this, but has to constantly change them as they sizzle away.

    So! Any recommendations for how I could use this power creatively and maybe even unusually? 🙂 Or rather, any particular situations that would require an unusual usage?

    Thanks in advance,
    Weiss

  30. Justin:Pon 16 Jul 2014 at 12:21 am

    How good a power do you guys think Vector Manipulation is against a villain with control over darkness and shadows among other dark and evil things?

  31. Yuuki991on 17 Sep 2015 at 8:55 pm

    Greetings. I’m currently working on the revision of my work. My hero Marshal Malachite is a cowboy themed superhero with the ability to perceive auras and manipulate forcefields.To that, aside from trying to tell a cohesive story(characters, plot dialogue etc.), I tried several ideas to make this power set unique.

    1) Force Slugs: Derek can project spherical pelts from his fingertips. These are what he calls Force Slugs. Much like a gunslinger, Derek can fire multiple rounds. These are similar to actual bullets(as Derek can control their density), but they usually knock his enemies away. He eventually learns how to shape armor piercing slugs and how to make them more like bullets.

    2) Praire Pads:Derek can create platforms to which he can suspend himself in the air. Derek eventually learns how to super leap with them. By generating a spring construct, Derek can jump several feet. By generating platforms underneath him and leaping, Derek can maintain the momentum of his jumps. In my view, I thought it was a bit more creative than creating a platform for levitation.

    As for his Aura powers, I likened it to echolocation. Derek sends out a pulse of his own life force that enables him to detect living beings within his immediate vicinity. That said, while giving him 360 degrees of vision, this limits his distance as the pulse he generates widens and becomes thinner. Thus, much like actual echolocation, he can only see a finite number of targets.

    As for Derek’s weaknesses, the biggest one (aside from mental strain from his barriers) is that he needs to use his hands(via gestures) for his powers. If his hands or arms are injured, this can limit what options he has. This is because Derek utilizes said gestures as a method to improve his concentration.

    Overall, that’s what I have come up with. I look forward to everyone’s feedback.

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